Welcome to paradise
Photo: A view from the trails in Nelson.
Before leaving the North Island for the very last time I returned to the place I had my first ride in New Zealand. While it was only a little over four months ago, it could have easily been four years. The sensory overload accompanied by this kind of adventure warps time beyond comprehension.
I parked at Makara Peak a few hours before my ferry for a few laps. I wanted to ride Yeh Gnar again - the terrifying track I did as a last run on that first ride - but discovering the trails were wet it was a definite na.
After waving goodbye to Sara, who had helped me so much, I panic drove to the ferry terminal pushing boarding time boundaries more than ever, but it was delayed anyway. No need to stress in this country.
‘I didn’t expect Nelson to touch Queenstown or Rotorua in terms of the quality of riding, and no way in hell did I expect to experience possibly the best mountain biking of my life, make good friends and want to live here.’
Photo: One last time at the top of Makara Peak. It felt like so much longer than five months since I was last here, on my first ride in the country.
It felt strange to be on the final leg of the trip with home in sight when I still had one month ahead of me - longer than any holiday I’d been on.
I made a plan: One week in Nelson, a week or so zig-zagging down the west coast riding Ghost Road and climbing a few mountains, and then a couple of weeks in Queenstown to sell my things and ride and hang with the boys until my flight.
But as was customary on this trip, my plans would change.
Photos: My third (and final) ferry crossing of the trip. It takes three hours to get to the other half of the country, double the time it takes to get from England to mainland Europe.
Finally in Nelson
Nearly every rider, no matter where I was in New Zealand, urged me to go to Nelson. The rumours of incredible technical riding didn’t entice me though, as I was more into flow, so I didn’t make it a major stop.
I had planned to visit earlier in the trip. In fact I had planned to go twice already. Initially as my first stop in the South Island (Maddy’s last minute visit threw me off course), and then on the way to Rotorua for Crankworx from Queenstown (forest fires shut down the trails).
Third time lucky.
I didn’t expect Nelson to touch Queenstown or Rotorua in terms of the quality of riding, and no way in hell did I expect to experience possibly the best mountain biking of my life, make good friends and want to live here.
On my first evening in town I met a friend from home and hung out with her in the hostel she was staying. It was late by the time I set off to a campsite just out of town and in the epicentre of the mountain bike trail network - Maitai Valley.
Then things went south.
Photos: First impressions of riding in Nelson - big massive hills with seemingly never-ending climbs.
On the front gates of the campground was a sign indicating it was closed between sunset and sunrise. It was midnight and nobody was around. Fuck.
I was way too tired from a big day of travelling and tipsy from the evening wine to deal with this. I drove along the fire road following the parameter of the campsite to a quiet area, parked, grabbed my tent and jumped the fence. I didn’t feel I had any other option; I just needed to sleep.
Since I’d snuck in I felt on edge and decided to leave early the next morning to avoid detection.
'As I woke up to my tent being shaken at 6am on an inflated air bed, things didn’t seem so bad; at least this time I’d slept.'
Photos: The day I didn't plan to ride, but thankfully I did. The trails in Richmond may not match the quality of those in Nelson, but they're still a blast.
Day 1 - No sleep and Richmond
I woke in the early hours to a flat airbed. Forcing myself out of the warm layers of sleeping bag and duvet into the cold I pumped it back up, found where the air was leaking, taped it up, and pumped it up again. Then a seam blew out.
The positive of sleeping on hard ground was I hadn’t gone into deep sleep, so I was awake early. Remembering my predicament, I got up without hesitation, packed up quickly, jumped back over the fence and cooked breakfast down the road. I was a mess.
After countess wrong turns I made it to a Warehouse to get a replacement bed. The staff at the returns desk had probably never had a more tired and disgruntled customer. Bed replaced, and other essentials I’d very annoyingly lost over the past week purchased, I walked out the store still in a daze when my phone rang.
It was Maddy. We hadn’t spoken in a few days and things still felt off. She went straight into anxiety offloading but I couldn’t be her rock at that moment. In fact this time I needed positivity and reassurance from the other end of the line.
I told her it wasn’t a good time. I was utterly exhausted, my phone that was almost impossible to charge (especially since losing my external charger) was nearly out of battery, and I had lots to do that depended on said phone for navigation and research.
I meant I couldn’t be there for her ‘now’ but she took it to mean ‘ever’, and became increasingly emotionally distant from that day on.
The next stop on my replace-or-fix-my-shit stop was Richmond, a town just out of Nelson, to get a sensor cleaner kit for my camera. I’d been trying to track one down for weeks.
Getting hold of any ‘specialist’ equipment in NZ generally leads to a wild goose chase. Even Wellington, the capital, didn’t stock a lens sensor cleaning kit in any of its four camera stores. Google provided high hopes for a tiny store in Tasman Bay, which was now my last hope before returning home. Search successful and kit finally in hand it was mid day and the sun had perked me up a little.
Checking Trailforks, my most used app alongside Rankers Camping, I saw there were trails literally up the road; it was too easy not to.
‘She recalled a couple who stayed at the campsite for a few weeks who seemed perfectly happy. Then one day the man, after exchanging a cheery hello that morning, shot his wife and then himself ten minutes later.’
Photos: Views from Fringed Hill Downhill near the end of my first full day in Nelson. Both the track and the views blew my mind, and this was only the start.
I asked a couple of riders in the car park where the trails were and they invited me on their lunch break shred. Their names were Bernard and Alan, and they’d become friends over the coming weeks.
The tracks were a blast - fast, dusty and with plenty of loose cambered roots between jumps. It felt like I was back in summer after the past few weeks of rain and mud on the North Island. A few runs and plenty of laughs later I took their numbers before they returned to work. I found the main downhill track, Hang Ten, and lapped it until the end of the day.
I got back to the car psyched; the morning felt like a different day. Crazy how a good session can turn things around.
Day 2 - A taste of things to come
Compared to the previous morning things got off to a relatively idyllic start. I did end up returning to the campsite the night before after closing and jumped the fence again, and this time I was spotted… But as I woke up to my tent being shaken at 6am on an inflated air bed, things didn’t seem so bad; at least this time I’d slept.
I walked to the other end of the campsite to pay, apologised, then went back to bed. After I woke the second time I ate breakfast under the sun then set off on my first Nelson ride. Conveniently, the uplift trail was less than a hundred metres away from my tent.
I couldn’t comprehend how long the climb was. I was approaching six miles until I finally, FINALLY, reached the start of my first Nelson trail. Te Are Koa, a three mile long descent.
The trail was rated a level 4 (out of 6) so I didn’t expect it to be super technical. But damn, I’d never seen roots like it. It was definitely more technical than any grade 5 trail in Rotorua.
Te Are Koa was relentless, with steep sections, unsupported tuns, and fast single track where you could easily find yourself off trail and in a tree if your attention slipped for just one moment. At the bottom I felt an overwhelming sense of relief; I’d survived.
Photos: Signs, part 1. Signs with beautiful backdrops. Signs with cool names. Signs among other signs... Signage game in Nelson is strong!
Evening was approaching as I climbed the fire road a second time to reach FDH (Fringed Hill Downhill), a 2,365 metre long downhill race track.
FDH is serious, with super steep rock sections and big jumps at the bottom. I felt real exposed in a trail helmet, but this was more like it.
I had only ridden two major descents that day, yet the sun was setting by the time I was heading back, along the Coppermine Trail, spoilt with views of the ocean before dropping down to the campsite.
The hills in Nelson are on steroids. I may have lost an hour or two to being lost, but 7,700 feet of climbing for two descents, TWO!? I had no choice but to dig deep on every ride if I was to stand a chance of even experiencing most of the trails here.
Day 3 - Beaches
It would have been rude to spend time in the Tasman Bay region without visiting its beautiful shoreline, so I let the Nomad rest while I joined Ruth for the day.
We boarded a boat to Tonga Island before a 15 mile coastal walk back to the car. It was refreshing to take a break from my solo activities and nice to have the kind of conversations you can only have with someone you know well.
The scenery wasn’t bad either.
She was leaving in a couple of days so I made the most of familiar company over the remaining evenings, drinking wine, playing giant Jenga and opening her world to the delight of fried broccoli.
Photos: Tasman Bay.
Maitai Valley Campground
Gates shutting at sunset issues aside, this was for sure the best campsite I’d stayed at. As well as being situated in the middle of one of the best mountain bike trail networks in the world, it had everything a traveller could need.
For $10 (£5) a night there were spacious grounds to pitch up far from people, proper toilet and shower blocks, a kitchen with fridges, seating and even a TV, a computer/charging room, washing machines, drying lines and essentials you could buy from reception.
Both the showers and washing machine cost two bucks so I didn’t use them much. I showered every few days, just having sink washes on the others, and I only used the washing machine when a friend gave me a token he had left over.
During my travels the accommodation choice was either camp for free or very cheap, but struggle with no power, no fresh food or even drinking water a lot of the time, or spend three times more to stay in a hostel with amenities but also the dreaded risk of snorers. The former tended to also be very solitary, and the latter very social. This campsite was the perfect mix of all these things.
Leaving my pan out to dry one evening, a group of young hippie American gap year students assumed it belonged to the campsite and used it. When they realised it was mine they apologised, thanked me with beer, and invited me to hang out with them.
'The quality and volume of trails in Nelson totally blew my mind, quite a feat considering I’d ridden in Whistler, the Alps, the Scottish Borders and the rest of New Zealand. This has to be one of the most densely packed areas of grade A mountain bike trails in the world.'
Photo: Mountains near the coast.
On another day I asked a guy wearing knee pads how he was liking the trails, and over the next few days I rode and chilled with him and his multi-national crew. They all met in the country and were from Germany, Scotland, Canada and Switzerland. I later realised I’d briefly met the Scottish guy in Queenstown a couple of months earlier when he trained me through Mini Dream at Wynyard. He remembered this clearly, having cased hard going at my slow BMX speed.
The Canadian had been touring the South Island with all his belongings strapped to his 29” wheeled Transition mountain bike - travelling by road and hitting the mountain bike trails along the way. They were a fun crew, laughing at nothing and everything, generous with their food and always stoked. I was sad when they left.
Photos: Rides and good times with the travelling crew.
As I paid the campsite woman she enlightened me about the wld and crazy happenings of the past 15 years.
There were stories of New Years Eve parties when the campsite was packed with hundreds of 16 year olds, as it was in their contract to provide space for them to drink and party so they weren’t the towns problem. She spoke of her worries of teenagers overdosing on drugs but luckily no-one had died.
The valley had witnessed more than its fair share of death however, due to turf wars, car crashes, flooding and other natural disasters, a neighbour who hung himself, and a shooting.
She recalled a couple who stayed at the campsite for a few weeks who seemed perfectly happy. Then one day the man, after exchanging a cheery hello that morning, shot his wife and then himself ten minutes later.
But she remained, herself becoming part of the Maitai valley and its history.
'I was hooked. After every run I’d think of where I could hold off the brakes for longer and take better line choices. The tracks were so good they sparked a fire in me to try harder each time and take more risks; and it was rare for me to ever ride all out.'
Photo: The view from the top of Broken Axe, possibly my favourite track. Ahead you can see the step up before the first technical rock section. I felt like I was riding Red Bull Hardline and I'd rarely been so motivated to improve my riding. Broken Axe was a true eye opener and one of the craziest tracks I've ever ridden; absolutely savage, but in the best way.
Back to riding
I couldn’t believe how many incredible trails there were in Redwoods, Rotorua, but this was on another level. The quality and volume of trails in Nelson totally blew my mind, quite a feat considering I’d ridden in Whistler, the Alps, the Scottish Borders and the rest of New Zealand. This has to be one of the most densely packed areas of grade A mountain bike trails in the world.
The tracks were the longest I’d encountered outside of a bike park and there was so much variety: from some of the steepest and rockiest trails I’d ever ridden, to smooth loamy single track.
There are national downhill race tracks with large jumps (Kaka DH, FDH and Broken Axe), crazy off-camber 15 minute long enduro trails (Putakari), savage rock rolls, mellow and fast flow trails (Turners), and tracks best described as a rollercoaster (DiVAS).
On top of that, there was huge variety within each track, such as Broken Axe with its super steep rocky sections, large jumps and flowy woods section.
Photos: It was mostly sunny during my stay in Nelson, but not always. Moody skies and mist only added to the atmosphere.
Ten days and nearly as many full days riding later I was still discovering mind-blowing trails and my limits were constantly being pushed. The process of looking down section of track terrified, pin balling down first time, dialling it in, then doing full runs faster each time was addictive.
I was hooked. After every run I’d think of where I could hold off the brakes for longer and take better line choices. The tracks were so good they sparked a fire in me to try harder each time and take more risks; and it was rare for me to ride all out.
It seemed impossible to get bored of the riding here. I was only held back by my legs taking me back to the top. The stoke at the end of each lap propelled me up the first part of the climb before the ache in my legs returned. I was doing back-to-back days with 5-8k feet elevation without a second thought; I’d never pushed myself so hard day-after-day.
On a typical day I stepped out of my tent around 7 or 7.30, have porridge (usually with cut up apples, banana and chocolate spread) with coffee, roll out the campsite between 8-8.30, lap until lunchtime, return to the campsite for lunch (toast, eggs, cheese and tomatoes with more coffee), head back out until dark, eat for most of the evening and decide what to ride the next day, retreat to my tent around 10pm to read Chris Ryan's 'The One That Got Away’ (found at the campsite) to put me in my place and sleep. It was a killer routine.
Top five trails in Nelson
Broken Axe My mind was blown when I first rode it. I didn't feel good enough so I lapped it until I hit every feature and A line, and let off the brakes a little more on steep sections that I sh@t myself on the first few times.
I felt like I was on Red Bull Hardline hitting big jumps into savage tech, and the fast loamy bottom section through the woods where you can hold off the brakes over the final jumps is the icing on the cake. Rolling onto the fire road at the bottom, the high I felt every single time was like coming up on MD. I'd never ridden anything like it.
DiVAS There is a chute near the top of the lower part I never felt in control on. Looking back through GoPro footage I could see the back end of the bike drifting wildly, and I took a slightly different line each time - I guess never finding the 'right' one. Surviving this section was always a rush, and takes you to some incredible catch berms, which you can ride faster each time.
From the berms you go into a hip, a committing traverse and a couple of really steep corners with good catches, before a really technical run in to a large jump through the trees. This is the smoothest down hill track in the area too - no savage rocks or roots here.
Kaka DH A six minute long world class downhill track with big jumps, little drops, a huge step down, committing high lines and, of course, steep corners. Possibly the fastest track too if you're not scared and on a downhill bike, since a lot of it is super rough. People who are scared of jumps trail off near the top to ride Putakari.
Aorere An insanely long (>15 minutes maybe? I didn't time it) and incredibly 'enduro' track. Another track with huge variety, but that doesn't rattle you to bits, so it's perfect on a trail or enduro bike. There are tight steep sections, insane off-camber, and fast singletrack with jumps and berms - so you're constantly switching between tech and flow.
I only rode Aorere two or three times, which seems criminal but unfortunately I couldn't lap everything despite my best efforts. One of those times was in the wet when I got totally shut down on the off-camber, which in parts is committing enough in the dry! One of those tracks that really pushes your technical ability - as it only gets better the faster you go and the more confidence you have. And if all that wasn't enough, it ends on a jump line with amazing berms.
Turners The one track in this list I could chill on! Turners is a flow trail, and one of the best I'd ridden at that. The jumps aren't big but the track is super fast and smooth with really nice berms and a rollercoaster feel to it.
Photos: Signs, part 2.
There were always good vibes from the locals and joining them for laps was all time. On one occasion we rode Aorere, a technical enduro trail with plenty of off-camber and slick roots, which I didn’t particularly enjoy the day before, but in a huge train the wildness just added to the fun.
Another time I rode it with a younger local and got dropped, big time. As nice as he was I couldn’t avoid resenting him a little for living here - and no doubt getting so good as a result. He rode savage off-camber sections like it was flat ground.
For the first time ever I was loving the thrill of riding steep and technical tracks, despite feeling totally out of my depth, and I’d clocked more miles and elevation than ever before.
Stats from 15 days in Nelson:
75,000 feet elevation
Photos: Always good vibes with the locals. They were so welcoming I felt like I was one of them from the first run.
Over a couple of days of heavy rain I treated myself to a hostel and took a well needed rest.
I’d grown fascinated by mountaineering films since getting a taste of it, sweating on the edge of my seat watching horrifying first ascents of the world's most dangerous peaks.
One of the biggest names in mountaineering is David Lama, whose videos I often searched for. While I was at the hostel the news came out of his death, along with fellow mountaineers Hansjoerg Auer and Jess Roskelley, who were hit by an avalanche while attempting a first ascent of a 10,810-foot mountain in Canada.
I was stumped, in disbelief that the world's best could be taken away in his prime - despite the fact that what he lived for quite often placed him on a seesaw facing death.
'It was the only time I rode this track. It reminded me of the time I was jumped as a teenager, taken down and then had eight feet repeatedly kicking me in the head.'
10,000ft elevation day
When the sun returned it was back to business. After so many consecutive 7 and 8k feet elevation days without trying, I knew this was the ideal place for a 10k elevation day challenge. Here were some of my favourite trails in the world, all close to one another and accessible by fire roads - it was perfect.
The prospect of riding ten of Nelson’s best trails in a single day got me pumped. The climbing aspect was only part of the challenge. The downhill alone was more than you’d do on an uplift day, and it included a large number of the most technically difficult and physical tracks I’d ever ridden - including three downhill race tracks. Has anyone climbed over 10k feet with a TLD D3 helmet before?
The day included two grade 6 and two grade 5 trails I hadn’t ridden, a jump session at the end of Kaka DH, and hitting some hectic A lines for the first time.
Photos: More views from Codgers and the rock roll on Maitai Face Full, taken by Max.
Later that morning I met Bernard and Max for party trains down Kaka DH and Maitai Face - two huge descents. The stoke was so high with those guys that the hunger and thirst blew over me. By the time they left it was mid afternoon and I’d ridden five tracks and done around 6k elevation on breakfast, two granola bars and two water bottle fills.
Exhaustion hit on the awful steep and loose fire road to the top of Codgers, which I did twice. Once for Broken Axe and again for a new one from the start of Kaka DH - Putakari. The physical tracks had also begun to take their toll on my upper body and I was struggling to hold rough lines.
Despite barely surviving the upper parts of Broken Axe I scoped out and hit two new A lines. The first was a drop into a steep narrow chute, which I have no idea how I rode out of (see the video below). The second was a hop over a large rock with a tricky run in to hold speed, which I was more nervous about but was fine.
Putakari is a favourite with some locals - described to me as a more technical version of Kaka DH without jumps. This seemed as good a time as any to check it out I thought, since I’d already ridden the DH track and there wouldn’t be any high-consequence features to stress over.
It was the only time I rode this track. It reminded me of the time I was jumped as a teenager, taken down and then had eight feet repeatedly kicking me in the head.
At least now the worst was out of the way.
Several hours later, and on my last run, I could barely see the trail in front of me. I couldn’t have ridden another track even if I wanted to as it was now totally dark. The final stats were 38 miles, a moving time of 7 hours 15 minutes, and 10,233 feet of elevation gain. I’d done it.
More laps and partying
Unexpectedly, I didn’t feel too bad the following day and packed in another 6000 feet to dial in Broken Axe, Smasher, Turners, DiVAS and Lollipop until a storm ended the fun.
I checked back into a hostel that night as it was Alan’s moving to Canada leaving do. I expected the night to involve a few drinks but nothing hectic, since quite a few of the group had families.
Once again I was proven totally wrong. The crew weren’t just wild on the bike. A few hours and a house stop later we were in a club and on another level.
While at the house I put The Brian Jonestown Massacre on, which sounded incredible in the zone we were in. Speaking to Bernard about music and life in general, I felt a profound connection on a level I hadn’t experienced before; this was the first time I’d met someone who was totally on my wavelength; a feat I didn’t think was possible, and it was intense.
Photos: There are far worse ways to spend a day hungover, even if the rock drop was the only feature from Motueka to write home about.
I detoxed the next day with a steady ride at a trail area outside of town by the sea - Kaiteriteri MTB Park. The riding was tame but anything more intense that day would have been a bad idea.
Relaxing after the ride with my first New Zealand Fish and Chips on the beach, I reflected on my time in Nelson and felt gutted about leaving two days later. I’d extended my stay from one week to 15 days, dropping Old Ghost Road and a sensible amount of time in Queenstown to prepare to leave. My flight back to England was in 10 days and I had to sell up first - I'd run out of time.
I’d struggled to leave places before but this was different. This time I didn’t just want to stay for longer, but indefinitely. Nelson truly felt like home. It wasn’t just that the riding was the best I’d experienced, the town just felt right, the scenery was incredible, and the locals had already become friends despite the short period of time I was there. I loved their stoke and I felt like I fitted in.
Photos: Codgers against different skies.
A few days earlier I desperately applied to reporter jobs and was invited to an interview, of course on a date after I would be gone. It was hopeless. I wished I’d discovered Nelson earlier in the trip; If I'd secured a half-decent job I would have stayed.
The trails were wet on my last day but I couldn’t pass by a final riding opportunity so I checked out some trails that were recommended by Max to hit in the wet, then met Bernard for a drink in the evening to say goodbye.
While I was devastated to leave, I was also psyched on how I squeezed every drop out of the time I was there. I’d lived every day to the full, crammed in more riding in two weeks than I’d ever done before (Whistler included), and made good friends.
It felt like a whirlwind romance, and I knew one day I’d be back.
Video: I wasn't as into the tracks going off Peaking Ridge, as they were largely like this - huge roots and steep loose rock. They were still good - I just preferred the trails on Codgers.